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Angels' Hunter offers swing vote

October 29, 2008|KURT STREETER

"Truth is, for me as a player, I probably would have let him hit."

The voice was Torii Hunter's and it was far less juiced than usual as he walked through the nightmare moments that spelled the end for this year's Angels team.

Remember Game 4 in Boston, the score tied after Hunter's bat had sparked a late rally, speedy Reggie Willits on third and just one out? The Angels score a run and back it with half-inning of good pitching, the series heads back to Orange County for the decider.

Yes, you remember. Instead of allowing Erick Aybar to swing away, as Hunter had hoped, Mike Scioscia called for a suicide squeeze play. Aybar failed to lay down a bunt, Willits got tagged out, all available energy was sucked from Hunter's team, and the Red Sox quickly won the game and the series with a run of their own. In short, this was the mother of all backfires.

"I don't even think they were trying to pitch to [Aybar]," Hunter said, so plaintively I imagined him staring hard at the floor and shaking his head in disbelief. "It was just five terrible minutes . . . the worst five minutes of my life."

Five minutes that sent Hunter into a tailspin from which he says he is just now emerging. I'd called to get his thoughts on that series, on the Angels' future, on what it's like to watch the playoffs and the World Series unfold after having been a linchpin on a team that won more games than any other during the regular season (100), only to get tossed from the big dance straight away.

"I am depressed, I'm ticked, I'm upset, my stomach hurts, yeah, all of that," Hunter noted, without much prompting.

He said he has watched the remaining playoff and World Series games from a suede sofa in his Dallas-area home. (For the record, he's rooting for Tampa Bay but will not be too distressed if Philly wins because Jimmy Rollins is a friend.) Often, he's found himself screaming at the TV in pure frustration. "It plays out in the back of your head all the time: 'Why am I not in the World Series? Why?' The season we had, we should have been there. But the way we played in the first round, we didn't deserve it."

I burrowed in on the question still haunting Angels fans: Scioscia's decision to squeeze. There are many who agree that Aybar should have been allowed to hit. But bunting in tight moments, isn't that the way your team played all year, dink-and-dunk, drip-and-drop, popgun hits and speed?

"No, no," came a quick reply. "People say that, but that's not how we played all year. You rarely squeeze. But in the regular season when you do squeeze you can do it because you've always got tomorrow. . . . If you lose you have tomorrow to make up for it. In the playoffs it is different. Totally different."

(Note: Hunter made sure to add that he wasn't saying this to harpoon Aybar or Scioscia, "In the end, that is just my opinion. I'm not mad at anybody on my team. We have to do what Mike says and if my manager says to squeeze I have to go by what he says. We have to execute. It just didn't work out.")

We continued. The normally effervescent outfielder searched for answers. He strongly disagreed with my notion that the Angels peaked too early, clinched a playoff spot too soon and got soft.

"The regular season has nothing to do with the postseason," he said. "They are two different entities. The playoffs come and the other team looks at the big hitters and they say, 'No way, I am not going to let this guy do things he did to us all year.' No good pitches come your way, guys start to chase out of the zone and try to be a hero. I think that happened to us a little bit."

True enough. You watched them at bat during those four games and, save for a few moments, you wondered if those were impostors out there in Angels red, a team of uptight, stiff-knuckled duffers.

At least Hunter cannot be faulted for failing to come through.

He didn't hit for power -- a demerit because he was brought on board, in part, to bring it -- but he hit well: a .389 average and five RBIs. (Moreover, Hunter was clutch, for example the two-out, two-run, eighth-inning hit that tied Game 4, leaving him at first base beating his chest, certain his team was about to bring the series back home.)

"What happened after that hit, the way things worked out, well, I just wish we could do it over, just wish. But it's over, you know? And, uh, now I guess we have to turn the page."

The 33-year-old Hunter thinks the Angels can be better next year. He wants to see them bring back slugger Mark Teixeira. If Teixeira isn't back, Hunter hopes they'll make a serious run at pitching ace CC Sabathia.

Though he quickly became a clubhouse leader in his first year as an Angel, Hunter says he actually tempered his approach because he was a newbie. Next season, he vowed there will be change.

"I am going to start right in spring training making sure the guys know that this year we are going to kick some [posterior]. . . . We are going to put it in everyone's heads that in the playoffs next year it is going to be different. Don't start worrying about the pressures of everyone saying we can't win the big ones or the Red Sox dominating you. Right away, I am going to try to [instill] that."

Hopefully, Hunter's extra punch of leadership will do some good.

We'll know it if the playoffs come, a five-minute window opens, and the Angels walk through before the window slams.

We'll know it if we're watching Hunter during next year's World Series instead of hearing about him watching others, home on his sofa, a knot of frustration in his gut.

--

kurt.streeter@latimes.com

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